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5 Sobering Reflections on the Sheep and the Goats Parable

Mouth of a goat in full viewThere’s something about Jesus’ sheep and the goats parable that I find harrowing. It captivates me like none of his other teachings—and haunts me.

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”—Jesus, Matthew 25: 31–46

Here are a few reflections on the portions of this parable that jump out to me:

1. Godliness is responsive

This is really the no-brainer interpretation of this passage, but it’s important to point it out. Being ready to respond to the needs of others is incredibly valuable.

2. Godliness is proactive

I am tempted to see the hungry, thirsty, naked, and sick as those who I need to respond to—but only if I see them. But after a while, the needy in the periphery of my life just fade into a dull tableau. I convince myself that I’d respond if they cross my path, but I become desensitized to them. That’s why “I was in prison and you came to visit” is the game changing part of this parable.

Visiting those in prison is the one facet of this parable you can’t misinterpret. Spending time with someone doing time is a proactive activity. You don’t accidentally stumble upon someone in prison. You have to pro-actively seek them out.

The prisoners inclusion here activates the rest of these activities (feeding the hungry, looking after the sick, etc.). Now the poor, sick, and hungry are elevated from potential, random opportunities for giving to actual responsibilities for us to ardently seek out.

3. Godliness is not judgment

Another way that the prisoner angle changes this parable is that it releases me from choosing who deserves to be served. Without it, I might be tempted to help those who I feel are hungry and thirsty through no fault of their own. I don’t get that luxury with the prisoners. The likelihood that the captive deserves his/her plight is pretty high. But it doesn’t matter.

And if it doesn’t matter for the prisoner, I can’t imagine that it matters for the poor or the sick. I am completely free from trying to figure out if someone deserves my help. I just get to serve them. And by serving them, I serve the Lord.

4. Godliness is resolution

It’s important to notice that neither the sheep nor the goats knew what they did (or didn’t do) to deserve Christ’s commendation or condemnation. The sheep didn’t do good for the purpose of praise. They didn’t do it because they felt obligated. They did it because they were resolved to do it.

Many of the goats, on the other hand, probably had the best of intentions—they just lacked resolve.

Jesus doesn’t micromanage his kingdom. He isn’t standing over us directing our every movement, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t paying close attention. We spend a lot of time agonizing over what God’s will is for our lives. Honestly, I think we all have a good idea where to start.

5. Godliness is service

Imagine walking home after listening to Jesus give this parable. What would your impression be? I hate to say it, but let’s be honest, you’d think that your eternity depended entirely on what you did or did not do.

The faith/works pendulum has swung so far in the faith direction that we don’t let Jesus words have the impact that he intends. We’ve emphasized right belief to the extent that, even when you talk seriously about New Testament teachings like this one, Christians warn you not to fall for that “social gospel.”

The New Testament plainly teaches that those who have the faith to follow Christ will (should) be transformed into the kinds of people who give of themselves selflessly. True, living faith transforms how we look at our time and our finances. The only way that this becomes a faith/works questions is when we ask ourselves, “Is my faith an assent to an ideology or is it a life-giving, perspective-changing plunge into a new kind of living?”

Here’s the $1,000,000 question: If Jesus was completely serious about wanting his people to serve the marginalized and the societal cast-offs, how else could he make it more clear?

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jayson, you do not allow a believer to wander away without being changed once they have paused by your stream to be refreshed with a new awareness of the Kingdom of God and our personal responsibility to be the reason why it shall be here as it is in Heaven. Be blessed. Continue the good fight. Appreciatively, Jacque

    October 26, 2013
  2. always wondered how this bit is so very ignored. this is about as crystal clear as it gets. more so than “john 16:4” easily.

    but it doesnt fit on a bumper sticker.

    or demand obedience to a church teaching.

    October 27, 2013
  3. All spot on for daily living, tho these verses must be put into context to fully understand them. Jesus has returned. He does not return until after the Wrath to set up His Mellinium Kingdom (the last sifting). So…those he is separating are those that survived the Wrath. The Saints were already pre-wrath changed in a twinkling to their new everlasting bodies. So….these he is talking to are those who were not believers in their heart core….but may have come to believe as events unfolded. But…the most important thing about them is that they (the sheep) were willing to risk their life to help those being persecuted by the antichrist system. Just as many died and risked their life to help the persecuted Jews in the Nazi system. That is the difference between a goat and a sheep as Jesus uses the terms. We (the sheep) are to love others more than our own self interests….and like Jesus did….we must be willing to lose our life if necessary in the process. Those are the ones who have a heart that beats for YHWH. They hate evil and love Yeshua.

    October 27, 2013
    • Thanks for the response Claudia!

      I appreciated your words. I completely understand where you’re coming from, but I would suggest taking this parable at face value and not adding in biblical interpretation.

      There are many interpretations of the end-times timeline and while I know that everyone assumes that the tradition they embrace is the most biblically accurate, they all have various levels of accuracy (and the Lord [not us] knows what they are).

      The problem I have with adding in our speculative timeline of events and significance is how it changes Jesus’ very meaningful words. We would never want to infer that Jesus’ words weren’t as important for his original listeners because they didn’t have access to the canonized New Testament and our established systematic theologies.

      Have a wonderful day, and thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      October 27, 2013
      • Your words are true, yet the entire Word would not be expressed if we did not take the entire teachings within the Bible to understand each teaching. God is the same and never changes. What Yeshua says to one in the times when He was here will not vary from what He says to those who are here when He returns. We are to apply all to our daily lives. We are instructed in the Word to keep watch so that we will be prepared always to act justly, with mercy and in humble submission to His purpose for our lives. No matter what time we live in… understanding of what Yeshua taught is that to follow HIM we must be willing to lay down our very life if necessary. Without that understanding, our commitment to HIM may be like the seed that was tossed on a stone surface. I did not find YHWH in the churches of mankind but in the woods and in the Bible. I do not put faith in any of the traditions of mankind that have been inserted into “the faith”. The Holy Spirit and the teachings of Yeshua are enough Light for me.

        October 27, 2013
  4. Hey Jayson: Jesus’ words seem clear. They seem clear enough to me now. However, I’ve got to say that I’ve spent year sof my life at churches where this scripture was interpreted very differently. Scriptures like this were used to implore Christians to more strident evangelism and missions. In retrospect, I imagine they probably saw feeding hungry and visiting the prisoner in a more metaphorical “spiritual” sense.

    October 27, 2013
    • That’s exactly what I was thinking Darren – so many churches (and, indeed, the Wikipedia article on it) seem to interpret the goats in the passage as non-Christians. When actually, the goats are Christians who never go Christianing.

      Now that the world is more networked than it was 20 years ago, I’ve started to wonder whether Jesus is hinting that there’s something really powerful the church could do if it took this passage seriously (I have a bit of a chew on this at

      Great article, Jayson!

      November 1, 2013

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